Luke McConnell is a fifth-grade phenom. The 11-year-old Forest Park native is one of the best cross country runners in the state for his age group. He attends St. Luke School in River Forest and was the only Bearcat to qualify for the state meet. Luke normally runs one-mile races and the state meet was only his second two-mile race. His time of 12:28 broke the school record of 12:48, set by an eighth-grader.  

Luke acknowledged that running a two-mile race was tough. “During the second mile, I got a stitch in my side.” Cross country coach John Morrissey believes Luke’s performance puts him in the top 10 of his age group in the state. Morrissey says Luke is the most talented runner he’s had in his 10 years of coaching. 

When it comes to his running career, Luke is literally following in the footsteps of his older brother, Aidan, who joined the team in fifth grade, which prompted his dad, also Luke, to become Morrissey’s assistant coach.  

This season, Luke finished first in all six meets St. Luke entered. He accomplished this while competing against fields of 80-110 runners. Coach Morrissey attributes Luke’s success to his smooth running form and mental toughness. Luke has the speed to sprint to the head of the pack and he remains the frontrunner until he crosses the finish line. 

The St. Luke team has 35 boys and girls on it. They practice by running through Thatcher Woods, or the Dominican Priory. They start with a one-mile warmup, followed by leg stretches. Morrissey’s runners also follow the fartlek method, which alternates sprinting with jogging. The 57-year-old trains alongside his runners and warns them, “Don’t let an old man beat you.” 

Morrissey helps his runners improve their running form and their breathing technique. But mainly he works on building their confidence. He also sends inspiring emails to the parents. 

Like Luke’s father, Morrissey became a coach because of his kids. He had played tennis in high school and didn’t know anything about cross country. His oldest daughter, Amy, though, encouraged him to become the coach. Looking back, he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. He has met so many great kids along with their parents. 

Of all the fall sports, Morrissey believes cross country is the most underappreciated. It doesn’t have packed stands, bands or cheerleaders. The spectators find it a challenge to cheer on their team. Parents sprint from spot to spot to catch glimpses of the runners.

The sport also had a reputation for being the one sport you could compete in, if you weren’t any good at the “ball” sports. Luke is an exception. He plays shortstop on his baseball team and center midfielder in soccer. (Aidan also doesn’t fit that mold. He plays football for Fenwick.) 

Luke keeps running during the cross country off-season. He does three-mile workouts through the streets of Forest Park and keeps a running log. He has a goal of 15-20 miles per week. When running outside is impractical, Luke runs two miles on his treadmill. 

I can relate to Luke because I ran cross country in high school. I signed up on the first day of freshman year and had no idea the sport required running. I also had no idea it would change my life. Those teammates I ran alongside. We’re still hanging out 50 years later. 

We don’t know what the future holds for Luke but he is certainly off to a fast start. As his coach says, “Kids like Luke in the program keep me going.”

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.